Miracle in the Scrap Heap:
The Sculpture of Richard Stankiewicz
The McNay Art Museum
Diana Lyn Roberts
Walking through this survey of works by Richard Stankiewicz is a bit like reading a Beat Generation novel. Down-and-out scraps of metal come together in seemingly random incidences. Each work is a masterfully composed character study of awkwardly elegant humanity. This is sculpture at its best—abstract and crusty—fully dimensional, both physically and metaphorically.
The exhibition, organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, is on view at The McNay Art Museum in San Antonio from April 13 to July 11, 2004. As stated in the accompanying literature, the exhibition “offers the first comprehensive survey of the art of Richard Stankiewicz (1922-83) and reassesses its place in the art of his time.” An exponent of the New York School of the 1950s, Stankiewicz’ work is associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, assemblage, junk sculpture—even neo-Dada and the French Nouveau Réalisme movement. Despite its broad appeal, the work has “eluded conclusive critical identification,” which of course is one of the reasons it is so vital and fun to look at.
Utilizing the castoff scraps of industrial America, Stankiewicz was a master of line and gesture. One cannot help but be fascinated by the elegance of assembled pulleys, chains, window weights, boilerplates, gears, pipes, machine parts and wire. Their rusty, corroded surfaces have the appeal of relics washed up on a beach with an organic, physical beauty that overrides the original function of each object. Stankiewicz’ compositional decisions and deliberate welds manifest in humorous, complex sculptural forms that range from the small, three-dimensional, agitated line drawing of metal wire, twine and buttons in Tantrum by a Feeble Figure (1952) to the human-scale, controlled, formalized structure and graceful gestures in Kabuki Dancer (1954).
More than half of the fifty or so works in the exhibition date from the 1950s. Most of these are inherently figurative and assert a distinct presence of character—often humorous but with an edge. For example, Urchin (1955), standing about thirty-five inches high, is formed from a T-juncture of handmade, ten-inch pipe. The edge of the metal roll forms a brow under which two wide-set eyes of smaller tubing stare blankly but self-aware, one arm holding a machine-part toy, the other bent with a finger in one nostril—all supported by two spindly legs. Urchin in the Grass (1956) and Railroad Urchin (1959) assert the same edgy character, with all the rough charm, self-assurance and ultimate distrust of a streetwise child.
The figurative aspect in Stankiewicz’ early work is clearly intentional. Titles like Machine People (1958), Middle-Aged Couple (1954) or Warrior (1956) render interpretation fairly self-explanatory. Figurative elements emerge from more abstract forms as a tiny hand, waggling fingers, eyes and noses. In Family Portrait (1954), knobs, springs and machine fittings are assembled into a rather formal group. This includes one figure which looks remarkably like a dog with an equal if not greater presence than the tall, gaunt, broken hacksaw figure in back of it.
Richard Stankiewicz, Speckle Bird Shy, 1957–58
Collection of Charles H. Carpenter, Jr.
Later works are increasingly untitled and less specifically figurative, having more to do with formal than associative relationships. One of the best works in the exhibition, from a purely sculptural perspective, is an untitled work from 1960 from The McNay’s permanent collection. Constant, subtle shifts of volumes and planes, complex internal spaces and deceptively simple forms create a totally dynamic spatial relationship. In contrast, Natural History (1960) presents a self-contained bundle of industrial remains, bound in fetal position by a heavy chain-link mesh, somewhere between a Peruvian mummy and a compacted junkyard automobile.
There are only five works from the seventies and eighties. They are increasingly formalized, based on a fabricated steel frame around which spatial elements interact. Referencing a two-dimensional conception of space, these works are still dynamic and fully sculptural. Other treats from The McNay’s permanent collection are six works on paper that give added perspective to the sculptures.
An excellent catalogue accompanies the exhibition. Three essays and 180 full-color illustrations provide a critical look at Stankiewicz and his work, placing the man and his art in the context of both the twentieth-century European avant-garde tradition and the milieu of 1950s New York. It’s an excellent look at the art historical relevance of this work. Getting closer to the bone, though, it might also be worthwhile to reread Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The gritty rhythm, flow, humor and poignancy of both artists’ work speak to an underlying aspect of Americana that shouldn’t be lost—the dignity of the down-and-outer with a will to assert, respect and experience life at full throttle.